Education

Regents add computer science category to assured admission to Iowa's public universities

Logan Tilkes, 8, plays a code.org game during the #x201c;hour of code#x201d; portion of the Summit Schools #x201c;Tinker
Logan Tilkes, 8, plays a code.org game during the “hour of code” portion of the Summit Schools “Tinkers and Thinkers” camp at Imagination Iowa in the Geonetric building in Cedar Rapids on Jan. 18, 2016. (File photo/The Gazette)

Iowa’s ability to economically thrive in the future hangs on its residents’ digital skills, some say, and state leaders recognizing that have crafted laws and standards urging computer science education — with the Board of Regents now getting behind the push.

The board recently voted to add a computer science category to a list of high school subjects in-state students can take to qualify for assured admission to one of Iowa’s public universities — the University of Iowa, Iowa State University or the University of Northern Iowa.

Other subjects already on the list — according to the Regent Admission Index — are English, math, science, social studies and world language. The vote adds computer science to the list.

In a statement, Gov. Kim Reynolds — who has pushed for more technical training across the state through the Future Ready Iowa program — pointed to benefits computer science education can have for all students.

“We owe our students the essentials to succeed in a fast-paced 21st century economy, and today that includes computer science,” Reynolds said. “Bringing computer science credentials into the admission index will prepare more students for the digital transformation that’s already happening.”

Course requirements account for only a fraction of the board’s automatic admission computation — with ACT or SAT scores weighing in, as well as grade-point averages. Classes that meet the requirements in other subjects include speech and communication under English; algebra and geometry under math; biology and physics under science; and history and government under social studies.

What is it?

A state law encouraged school districts and non-public schools to offer “high-quality computer science instruction” by July 1, 2019.

A statewide committee sought to define just what “computer science” is. It decided to characterize it as “understanding how and why technologies work, exploring whether and how technology could solve real-life problems, investigating the necessary procedures, creating solutions, and learning about computing systems, programming data, networks, and the effects on society and the individual.”

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A regents admission study team considered that 2017 definition and sought faculty expertise and considered statewide enrollment and access in deciding which computer science courses should qualify for the addition.

Regents Chief Academic Officer Rachel Boon in November told the board that computer science is not instruction on how to use computers generally, or “information technology.”

It instead focuses on how to use technology appropriately and responsibly; and how to apply computer literacy to other school subjects

For inclusion among the Regent Admission Index requirements, four computer science courses gained unanimous approval: advanced placement computer science, AP computer science principles, computer science principles and international baccalaureate computer science.

The expanded list of course choices to meet the admission requirements will apply to all Iowa students seeking automatic admission to a regent university in summer 2021 and beyond, according to Boon.

Out-of-state students are not promised admission to an Iowa public university. But each regent school can use the index for admitting those applying from outside Iowa, and they often do.

Course offerings grow

The number of Iowa high schools offering the regent-approved computer science courses has surged 132 percent in just two years, from 28 in the 2016-17 school year to 65 in 2018-19.

Much of that growth has been in northeast and north-central Iowa, but southern Iowa remains without many schools offering the courses. University officials are working with community colleges and others to expand training for teachers in those “blank” regions.

The increase in course offerings in other parts of the state has compelled an impressive rise in high school enrollment in regent-approved computer science courses — from a total 429 in 2016-17 to 1,258 in 2018-19, amounting to a nearly 200 percent increase.

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The percent increase in interest is similar for both male and female high school students, although the total number of boys enrolled in the relevant high school courses is far greater.

Student interest in computer science and related fields has been growing at the public universities, too, which report a 52 percent increase over five years in undergraduates majoring in computer science — from 2,398 in 2015 to 3,645 this fall.

Regents President Mike Richards said the admission index expansion reflects the system’s ability to respond to an evolving economy.

“Our public universities are leaders in providing education for high-demand jobs, and computer science is at the forefront of that.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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